OKLAHOMA CITY -- If anyone still doubts the correlation between obese America and our fast-food culture, consider Oklahoma City, where the mayor has asked residents to join him on a diet.
The city best known to many Americans as the site of Timothy McVeigh's horrific act of terrorism in 1995 is also the fast-food axis of the nation and the eighth fattest, with an obesity rate of 25 percent.
Mayor Mick Cornett is hoping to change that. On New Year's Eve, he challenged citizens to lose 1 million pounds and launched an interactive Web site where people can sign on and track their weight loss (thiscityisgoingonadiet.com).
As of this writing, 14,688 dieters, including interlopers from 40 countries, have lost 27,153 pounds, or about 13.5 tons.
Sitting in his office in downtown Oklahoma City, Cornett looks more like a GQ model -- or like the news anchor he was until 1999. Lean and chiseled, he's 38 pounds lighter than a year ago. By the end of February, he hopes to make his goal of losing 42 pounds, from 217 to 175.
Cornett is losing about one pound per week -- and the old-fashioned way. No carb-counting, no fat-gram calculus, no miracle shakes, sugar busters, pills or pulleys. He simply cut his calories from about 3,000 to 2,000 per day and plays tennis three days a week.
That's it. Non-geniuses know that you have to burn more calories than you consume or risk getting fat, but fast-food nation is also quick-fix country. Real, sustained weight loss takes patience, discipline and commitment, not a calculator.
Cornett, who has always struggled with weight, says he wants to remove the "blanket of shame" from excess poundage. People will talk about their erectile dysfunction or sexually transmitted disease in a skinny minute, but they won't talk about their flab. Now that's personal.
The OKC diet isn't an isolated initiative, but is part of this rebirth after the Bombing, which receives uppercase treatment around here. The overhaul actually started in 1993 with a voter-approved penny sales tax that would last five years (later extended) to fund everything from downtown redevelopment and river restoration to education improvements.
The Bombing broke city momentum only temporarily. The sales tax raised more than $309 million and went toward nine projects, including a sports arena, ballpark, trolleys, dams and building renovations. Today, the formerly desolate downtown boasts seven hotels where there used to be one, and thousands of residents are moving back into the inner city.
Thus, dieting is just another piece of a cultural shift toward a new self-image and higher standards in quality of life. Civic pride seems endemic to the city's DNA. I've yet to meet a local who can't rattle off a series of statistics and accomplishments unique to the city.
They'll tell you, for instance, that OKC is the 12th-fastest-growing large city in the nation and has been ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the best cities in which to find a job. The city has added 65,000 new jobs since 2004.
Also, air quality has always met EPA ozone standards, unlike a majority of American cities, which makes OKC attractive to new industry. The drinking water was voted "best-tasting" in the nation last year by the American Water Works Association.
OKC is also, apparently, a great place to open a squat 'n' gobble. The fast-food business model works well here because land is cheap and people drive everywhere. OKC is the third largest geographically in the nation (behind Jacksonville, Fla., and Anchorage, Alaska). Taco Bell alone has 40 restaurants here and boasts 35,000 visits per day.
Cornett is tackling that factoid, too, talking with Taco Bell executives about co-promoting a tomato-based "fresco" alternative to the usual sour cream/guacamole fixings.
As part of OKC's new identity, the city is also trying to change from sprawling and automobile-centric to pedestrian-friendly and, as a result, more fit than flabby. To that end, citizens approved bond issues to install 350 miles of new sidewalks and also to build new gymnasiums in all 47 inner-city elementary schools.
In a time of cynicism and partisanship, it is refreshing to find a community so united in common goals where everyone walks the walk.
There must be something in the water that makes it taste so good.